Kathy Archer: Has big shoes to fill

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

It wasn’t an unusual spot for Kathy Archerto have spent an election night, glued to the screen, eagerly awaiting results.

But this time she was waiting on an outcome of her own, and at the end of the night it was good news: She’d been elected to the Claremont Unified School District’s Board of Education.

“I am very humbled and thankful that the community has put their trust in me to serve on the school board,” Ms. Archer said this week.

She was the top vote getter in the race for two open school board seats, with 11,567, or 41.6 percent of those cast. Bob Fass garnered 10,012, or 36 percent of the ballots received. Chris Naticchiacame in third, with 6,215 votes, or 22.4 percent. Votes will continue to be tallied until November 30.

Ms. Archer and Mr. Fass will be sworn in at the board’s December 17 meeting, filling the seats of Hilary LaConte and Mary Caenepeel, who did not seek reelection.

It will be the first time Ms. Archer will have held public office, save the year she spent as vice president of her fifth grade class.

She was born in La Mirada. Her parents bought a house in West Covina when she was a youngster, and there she stayed until she went off to college to earn a degree in political science, and later a law degree. She passed the California Bar Exam in 1995, and then took a job working for Unocal in its tax department. But she became disillusioned with the work.

“I didn’t have any passion for what I was doing,” she said. “We had just gotten married. I didn’t love [the job] enough to stay and I was just trying to consider my next move, and my husband said, ‘Why don’t you go take that test where you can be a teacher? I think you’d be really good at it.’ And that was it. I did not look back.”

She spent the next 23 years in the classroom, all but one of them at Charter Oak High School, teaching freshman and sophomore honors world history and IB history of the Americas for seniors.

She’s lived in Claremont more than 20 years. Married in 1997, she and her husband Bill have a daughter, Shelby, who is a sophomore at Claremont High School.

“I was honestly very, very surprised,” she said of her victory. “It took my breath away.”

A big reason she was breathless on election night had to with the pride she knew her parents would have felt. Her mother died in 2014 and her father a decade ago.

“A friend posted something in Facebook today saying that she dreamt about her mom last night…” she paused to compose herself before continuing. “My first though after my husband came and give me a hug and said, ‘I’m proud of you,’ was gosh, my parents would love this.”

Her weeping then continued for a time. “My mom was a teacher and my dad was a doctor, but kind of like a teacher on the side. They would have been so excited. That was my first thought, that I wish my parents could see this. So, even 10 years since my dad’s been gone, they’re never far from my thoughts. They’ve got this incredible grandchild that they didn’t get enough time with.”

Several challenges have arisen over her more than two decades in the classroom. She cites 9/11 and the Columbine massacre as two of the most demanding moments. But the COVID crisis has been ongoing for nine months and is showing no signs of abating.

“This is really one of the greatest challenges of my teaching career,” Ms. Archer said. “It’s just really hard to make plans, because I’m the type of teacher where I have a vision of my year in June, and I’m ready to go the beginning of August. But because there was just so much uncertainty, it was just hard. Honestly every day is hard.”

Among the difficulties she’s encountered has been the reluctance of many students to be so exposed as to sit in front of a computer camera throughout class.

In-person instruction involves reaching students individually by picking up on cues such as body language and attitude, she said. These decades in the making skills are made nearly impossible by the depersonalized nature of distance learning.

“I can tell when my kids walk in the room if they’ve had a really hard third period and they walk in my room in fourth period. And I know when I’ll take the foot off the gas a little bit. You just know. And I just don’t get that right now.

“I think that my daughter described it best: the students feel very vulnerable when all eyes are on them. When you’re a student sitting in a classroom, you look at the back or the side of someone’s head. But now you have eyeballs on them the whole time. So there’s a vulnerability there. Even though it’s digital, there’s a vulnerability there that kids are very uncomfortable with.”

Ms. Archer is joining the CUSD board at a challenging time. The pandemic has upended most norms, and the uncertainty about when the status quo may return has been stressful for all concerned. Couple that with the recent resignation of longtime Superintendent Jim Elsasser, and the heightened degree of difficulty is clear.

“I think the most important thing, especially when you’re new, is to listen,” Ms. Archer said. “I’ll be part of the conversation, but most importantly I need to do a lot of listening and really get my finger on the pulse of what’s happening. And obviously the biggest thing at CUSD right now is how are we handling distance learning.”

The ideal candidate for superintendent would have teaching experience in multiple grade levels, she said.

“I know that’s hard to ask for and it’s not necessarily going to happen, but I would definitely like  someone who has classroom teaching experience. I think that’s important. Also, someone who has a collaborative approach and a high level of understanding of [California Education] code and is willing to be open to working with staff and receive input from the associations. Let’s put it this way: all the things that make Jim Elsasser a great superintendent, because that’s really just a description of him. Things have been working really well for eight and-a-half years.”

And it’s not just Mr. Elsasser who looms large in her approach to her new responsibilities. She’s known the two board members who did not seek reelection, Hilary LaConte and Mary Caenepeel, as well as Beth Bingham, who stepped down in March.

“I’m very well aware that I am filling very big shoes,” Ms. Archer said. “They were phenomenal board members. Remember, nobody ran in the last [2018 CUSD School Board] election? It was because it’s just a great board. I’m super excited about joining it, but super sad that those three women are leaving.”


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